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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bouchon: Fantastic Bread, Superb Pork Belly, Soso Everything Else


Thomas Keller's Bouchon surely opened to sky-high expectations, given his stature and the hype surrounding his other restaurants, the famed French Laundry in Yountville and Per Se in New York City.

I haven't been to any other two and our server at Bouchon reminded us more than once that one should not expect to be blown away by a meal at Bouchon. After all, he said, Bouchon is a bistro and in short, is no French Laundry or Per Se. This was a place chefs from these haute cuisine joints would go eat after their shifts ended.

I'll say this. I was blown away by the bread. It was just the kind of baguette that one craves when you're wanting to just munch on cheese, salami, or just really good butter. The crust was perfectly crunchy without being too hard. The inside was soft and basically, I couldn't stop eating the bread although I usually try to save room for the starter and main dishes.


This one was an Epi Baguette, shaped like a wheat stalk. The good news and the most ecstatic moment of the evening for me was when our server told us that this goldmine of a bread will now be available for purchase at the Bouchon Bakery that will open in a few months at the bottom floor of the premises. Hopefully the bakery will have not just baguettes but eclaires, chocolate croissants and apple turnovers, which are my favorites.

Anyway, let's focus on the food that is available for now. The best dish was the braised pork belly on a bed of mixed beans (first photo). The menu described this as "glazed pork belly with a cassoulet of pole beans & mustard scented pork jus." There were chick peas, black eyed peas and canellini beans. The pork belly was soft and juicy and paired perfectly with the jus reduced to its deep-flavored essence with just the right saltiness.

Since we were at a bistro, we had to have the closest thing to the classic steak frites -- a perfectly seared bloody steak with the best fries. This one was a flatiron steak, which our server explained was a much derided shoulder area of the cow but that this restaurant cuts it differently so as to impart flavor, etc. Well, the steak didn't walk the walk, so to speak. It was good enough, but didn't have too much flavor, a-la Jar's excellent rib-eye steak. Sure, I'm guessing rib-eye may have more marbling and hence more flavor and juiciness, but in any case, not blown away. I later re-seared the leftovers over a bed of arugula and after seasoning the meat a bit, it tasted a lot better. Not much complaints about the fries. They were hot, crispy and delicious. Very generous portions too.

Perhaps the most disappointing dishes of the meal were the starters. We had, as part of the Dinela menu, ham hock terrine with pickled vegetables and good bread, as well as the mixed greens with red wine vinaigrette and warm goat cheese.

The terrine smelled too porky for me and this from someone who absolutely adores pork. I wasn't impressed with the quality of ingredients. The bread was good but I had to repurpose the terrine as a hash where I added scrambled egg, home fries, some shredded cheese and some red pepper paste. It made for a great brunch.

Oh, it also came with some garlicky canellini beans paste to spread on the bread (also complimentary for the table with the lovely previously mentioned baguette) but I wasn't into this at all.

I was also disappointed at the butter served with the baguette of my dreams. It tasted fine but really, real yummy French butter should be saltier and yellower. Call me crazy.

Desserts were nothing to write home about. The Pot de creme was some ginger-infused custard served with gingersnap cookies. This number to the right is the namesake of the restaurant -- bouchons -- basically brownies with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice-cream. A bit on the sweet side. Just ok.

The vibe reminds me of places like Balthazar and other cool Keith McNally-owned places in New York City. Granted, he probably modeled his bistros after real bistros in Paris, as did Keller.

Our server urged us to return for regular prix fixe lunch menus (albeit not listed online) even on off Dinela periods. Maybe once the bakery opens so I can stock up on bread on my way out.

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